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by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: I hear that many school cafeterias have nutrition standards no better—even worse—than those of fast food chains. What can be done about this?    --Betsy Edison, Nashville, TN


Americans have done a great job making sure that our kids have something to eat at school regardless of socio-economic status, with the National School Lunch Program providing low-cost or free lunches to upwards of 31 million students at 92 percent of U.S. public and private schools.


But that doesn’t mean the food has been especially nutritious, and public health experts say it’s no wonder our kids are more obese than ever when we feed them trans fats, salts and sodas for lunch. Kids get half their daily calories at school, so what’s for lunch there has a big impact on health and lasting eating habits.


A 2008 analysis of school lunches by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that American kids consume very few fruits and vegetables in their cafeterias—with potatoes accounting for a third of all vegetables consumed.IOM also found that kids were eating many refined grains and too much saturated fat and sodium. A 2009 study by USA Today found that meat used by McDonald’s and Burger King was tested for bacteria and unsafe pathogens up to10 times as much as meat bound for U.S. school cafeterias.


In response to these stark findings, along with vigorous advocacy by First Lady Michelle Obama, things are starting to improve. In 2010, Congress voted to revamp the nation’s school lunch program by enacting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The higher standards in the new law seek to align school meals with the federal 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by upping the availability and portion sizes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (and requiring students to select a fruit or vegetable), establishing calorie ranges, removing trans fats and limiting sodium levels. The law also incentivizes schools to take part with generous meal reimbursement funds. The new standards went into effect in 2012 and have been working their way through school districts from coast-to-coast and getting rave reviews in the process.


Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health who collected plate waste data among more than 1,000 students in four schools in urban, low-income school districts both before and after HHFKA took effect found that fruit selection increased 23 percent following implementation: “Average per person fruit consumption was unchanged,” said researchers, “but because more students selected fruit overall, more fruit was consumed post-implementation.”Also, per student vegetable consumption went up 16.2 percent.


But just because public health researchers think the program is going well doesn’t mean Congress will keep it going. TheRepublican-dominated House of Representatives has included waivers for school lunch nutrition standards in its fiscal-year 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill. “The provision would allow schools with a 6-month net loss of revenue to opt out of providing the healthier meals outlined by the HHFKA,” Dr. Jennifer Woo Baidal writes in the New England Journal of Medicine. “A deficit of any amount from any cause could allow schools to return to the same meals that the IOM found in 2008 to be nutritionally lacking.” Consumers interested in protecting the new nutritional standards should weigh in by calling, writing or e-mailing their Congressional representatives and speaking up for healthier kids.


CONTACTS: National School Lunch Program, www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-nslp; IOM,www.iom.edu;HHFKA, www.fns.usda.gov/initiative/hhfka.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the potential health and environmental impacts of so many genetically engineered organisms in our foodsupply?

                                                                                                            -- Frank C., Charlottesville, VA

Proponents of genetic engineering (GE)—whereby DNA from unrelated species is combined to produce improved or novel organisms—insist that the benefits of increased crop yields and less agricultural waste outweigh the potential risks, but many environmental and public health advocates aren’t convinced.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists(UCS), one risk of GE is that our new “frankencrops” could become invasive, toxic to wildlife, or dangerous in other as-yet unknown ways. “But the most damaging impact of GE in agriculture so far is the phenomenon of pesticide resistance,” reports UCS, adding that millions of acres of American farmland are infested by weeds that have become resistant to Monsanto’s popular herbicide glyphosate (known to most by its trade name Roundup). “Overuse of Monsanto's ‘Roundup Ready’ trait, which is engineered to tolerate the herbicide, has promoted the accelerated development of resistance in several weed species.”

As a result, farmers are now turning to older, more toxic herbicides—and agribusiness companies are responding in kind with new rounds of GE crops engineered to tolerate these older chemicals. UCS worries that the process repeating itself is only leading us down the path of plants evolving quickly to overcome our defenses however technically brilliant they may be.

As for health risks, UCS acknowledges that eating refined products derived from GE crops is unlikely to cause health problems, but maintains that inserting a gene from one organism into another could still have unintended health consequences. For example, those with food-borne allergies could be at increased risk for reactions given the combination of genes in what looks like any other vegetable or piece of fruit. “This phenomenon was documented in 1996, as soybeans with a Brazil nutgene—added to improve their value as animal feed—produced an allergic response in test subjects with Brazil nut allergies,” reports UCS.

Given these risks, some 21 countries and the European Union (EU) have instituted policies requiring foods created with GE technology to be labeled as such so consumers can know what they are buying and putting into their mouths. EU rules mandate that if any ingredient in a food has 0.9 percent or higher of genetically modified organisms, it must be marked accordingly on its packaging. Environmentalists in the U.S. would like to see the federal government put in place a similar policy—research from the non-profit Just Label It found nine in 10 Americans to be in favor of mandated GE labeling—but lobbying interests from agricultural states with a vested interest in selling more GE products still hold lots of sway over elected officials. So for now, Americans concerned about what’s in their food will need to do their own homework regarding what’s safe to put on their dinner tables.


Luckily some natural foods retailers are making it easier for consumers intent on avoiding GE foods. Whole Foods, for one, is working toward full disclosure via labeling in regard to which of the foods on its store shelves contain GE ingredients. While Whole Foods may be a pioneer in this regard, environmentalists are hoping other U.S. grocerystore chains will follow suit so that Americans can decide for themselves whether or not to take the risk of eating GE foods.

CONTACTS: UCS, www.ucsusa.org; Just Label It, justlabelit.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.


Dear EarthTalk: I know that some large buildings filter some of their waste water to irrigate exterior landscaping.  Is there an affordable way to do this at home?               -- Bill P., Salem, OR


Nowt hat solar panels are so commonplace on rooftops across the country, reusing so-called greywater—that is, the waste water from sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines—for landscape irrigation may be the next frontier in the greening of the American home, especially if you live in an arid region where water use is restricted. In fact, reusing your gray water may be the only way to keep your lawn and garden healthy without taking more than your fair share ofthe community’s precious fresh water reserves.


“Usingwater from sinks, showers and washing machines to irrigate plants is a way to increase the productivity of sustainable backyard ecosystems that produce food, clean water and shelter wildlife,” reports Greywater Action, a California-based non-profit dedicated to educating and empowering people to use watersustainably. According to the group, a typical U.S. single family home can reduce water use by as much as 30 percent by installing some kind of grey water reclamation system while simultaneously reducing pollution into nearby water bodies by filtering out contaminants locally. Capturing and reusing grey water can also be part of the battle against climate change, given that you’ll be helping grow plants that sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide while reducing demand on a regional wastewater treatment facility that’s likely powered by fossil fuels.


The simplest way to get into home greywater reuse is to install a “laundry-to-landscape” system that sends washing machine wastewater outside via a diversion tank and hose that can be moved around to irrigate specific sections of the yard. Equipment costs for such a set-up max out at $200, but labor and expertise may tack on another few hundred dollars. Handy homeowners can do much of the work in setting up such systems themselves, though those without much home repair or plumbing experience might at least consult a professional. Greywater Action suggests one way to reduce costs is by digging trenches for diversion pipes and mulch basins yourself -- or enlist friends who want to support the effort and learn about residential greywater reuse in the process.


Amore comprehensive system can draw wastewater from sinks, showers and tubs, too—and then filter and distribute it to backyard landscaping via a drip irrigation network. Getting such a system professionally installed can run upwards of $5,000.


Either way, once the greywater diversion system is in place, you’ll need to be careful about what goes down the drain, given how it might affect the plants and soils right outside. “In any greywater system, it is essential to put nothing toxic down the drain — no bleach, no dye, no bath salts, no cleanser, no shampoo with unpronounceable ingredients, and no products containing boron, which is toxic to plants,” adds Greywater Action.


For more information on installing a greywater reuse system yourself, check out the resources section of Greywater Action’s website, where you’ll find diagrams,written instructions and even videos to make the job go smoother. Those more inclined to hire a professional can browse through listings of qualified installers across the country. And if you want to see how it’s done first-hand,sign up to attend one of Greywater Action’s one-day workshops on how to install a greywater catchment and diversion system in a residential setting.


CONTACT: Greywater Action, www.greywateraction.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.


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